Answers to that question have traditionally been inadequate because of the often narrow scope of ecological studies, said Dave Tazik, a project scientist and director of NEON's director of biology.
"This is a very unique enterprise in many ways," he said. "Ecological science has traditionally been done at relatively small scales, from local sites to local landscapes and ecosystems, so it is a challenge in that ecologists are now being engaged in an enterprise where we are dealing with large engineering systems and large-scale project management. So it is a large transition and a fundamental change in the way we do ecology."
In its description of a permit application for the Red Butte site, the Forest Service said NEON will collect site-based data about climate and atmosphere, soils, streams, ponds and a variety of organisms. The Red Butte area is a collection point for both aquatic and land-based data representing the Great Basin region.
The Murray and Tooele County sites are also in that region, while the Moab site falls into the southern Rockies eco-region.
Overall, the NEON project involves construction of a new national observatory, and NEON's technology will also foster a virtual laboratory to promote understanding of the correlation between environmental change and biological processes.
The preliminary work requiring a permit at the Red Butte site is under review by the federal agency in Salt Lake City. The site analysis there will help in the design of towers and other instruments for use at 106 locations in the continental United States, as well as Hawaii, Alaska and Puerto Rico.
"I think it's going to set a precedent and a standard for research for the next century," Tazik said, "so it's very cutting-edge and very exciting to be involved in what I would say is an extremely cool project."
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